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13 November 2021

How the memory of the Paris attacks is shaping France’s national psyche

The ongoing terror trial is adding a new dimension to the nation’s collective memory of the attacks of 13 November 2015.

By Katherine Cowles

Helicopters shuddered from evening until morning. That’s what I remember: the way the shutters shook, the sirens, the sobs from across the courtyard of my building in Paris’s Latin Quarter. Six years after that night on Friday 13 November 2015, I can remember my flatmate ringing to say he’d heard gunshots, and a call from another friend, reassuring me she was safe in the home of a stranger who, like many that night, had opened their door to those seeking refuge. I remember scrolling – a tragedy played out in tweets: confusion, attacks at a dozen locations; a death toll rising.  

Around midnight, the then-president François Hollande declared a state of emergency. Just hours before, he had been watching France play a friendly football match with Germany at the Stade de France. At half time, he was quietly evacuated following an explosion outside the stadium. The match continued; France won 2-0 and the fans sang “La Marseillaise”. Before full time, 39 people had been killed in bars and restaurants in the east of the city, and three gunmen had stormed the Bataclan concert hall, killing 90 people and wounding several hundred more.

It matters how we remember major events like these because they can shape a nation, its politics and its psyche. So says Denis Peschanski, a senior researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris and the co-leader of the “Programme 13-Novembre”. Over the course of ten years, from 2016 to 2026, through interviews with nearly 1,000 volunteers – including witnesses, survivors, family members, police, as well as hundreds not directly involved – the programme will study how memories of the attacks of 13 November are shaped and evolve. Six years on, we are in the middle of a new phase in this evolution: the terror trial in Paris. The proceedings, according to Peschanski, mark a moment when personal testimony interacts with and builds France’s shared narrative of the tragedy.

The trial, which began on 8 September and is due to finish in May 2022, is the biggest criminal trial in France’s history: nine months, 20 suspects, nearly 1,800 civil plaintiffs, 330 lawyers, five judges and a case file of more than a million pages. Fourteen defendants are present in court; six, presumed dead, are being tried in absentia. Only the chief suspect, 32-year-old Salah Abdeslam – who fled after the attacks to Brussels, where he was captured four months later – is accused of murder. (The other defendants face a range of charges, including planning and aiding the attacks.) The object of the trial is not only to establish the innocence or guilt of the accused but also the origin and execution of the terror plot. The trial has also given a voice to the survivors and the victims’ families: throughout October, more than 300 civil parties testified, their stories shaping the official record of events.

In the wake of 9/11, the French theorist Jacques Derrida described the attacks on New York as part of “the archaic theatre of violence aimed at striking the imagination” – a spectacular kind of horror. If the 2015 Paris attacks were part of this “theatre of violence” – an assault not so much on the icons of capitalism but on la belle vie – then the trial takes place in the theatre of peace. It is a counter-narrative, Peschanski tells me, to the barbarism of the attacks. The courtroom itself, specially built for the trial within Paris’s Palais de Justice, complete with pale wood benches, glass panels and warm white lights, creates an atmosphere of calm and neutrality.

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In this muted arena, where much pain has already been relived, some hope there is also the opportunity for relief. As Arthur Dénouveaux – a Bataclan survivor and president of the Life for Paris survivors’ group – described after testifying in court, the process has created a kind of “serenity which is quite incredible. You find yourself in front of magistrates who listen to you and, strangely, you feel good there.

Other survivors have pointed to the unifying potential of storytelling. “Thanks to this trial,” said one, Pierre-Sylvain, “it all becomes a collective story… our common heritage.” Another, David Fritz Goeppinger, who was taken hostage in the Bataclan, documents the ritual of attending the trial week-on-week in an online diary series – the way it bonds the victims, the way the courtroom has become “a vessel for memory holding the words of the victims”.

According to Peschanski, the trial also provides the victims with a necessary consistency to their collective memory. For the witnesses a “story with holes is potentially pathogenic”; it leaves room for doubt and confusion to fester. But the trial could construct a more complete picture of the events, acting as a corrective, almost, to what he called “memory condensation”. He described, for example, how even certain events have become obscured. When asked in the first round of interviews in 2016 to describe their memories of 13 November, many volunteers – around half of whom were not directly affected by the attacks, being outside observers in Paris and further afield – referenced the Bataclan (70 per cent), while 40-45 per cent cited the assaults at the Stade de France and the terraces. But by the second round two years later, only 17-19 per cent mentioned the Stade de France and the terraces. Instead, respondents tended to encapsulate the events with a single reference to the “Bataclan”, or vaguely to “Paris”. “It is a classic phenomenon of both collective and individual memory,” Peschanski told me. “We retain just enough to explain the whole.”

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The trial will help return events and moments to a story that, six years later, is still being written. The proceedings are due to run beyond April’s presidential election and, with security and Muslim immigration key voter issues, the trial could feed into political campaigns. Yet the way it is shaping the national story is also much larger than politics. Whereas the collective memory of Friday 13 November has so far been structured around the figure of the victim, Peschanski suggests that the trial foregrounds the hero too – the police, the first responders, the neighbours opening their doors and helping the injured. Will it become, then, a tale of strength and national resilience?

Perhaps it always was. The helicopters only roared for so long: by Saturday, the dog-walkers had returned to the parks, the shoppers to the streets, and hundreds queued outside local hospitals to donate blood for the wounded. By Sunday, Paris sat out on the leaf-lined terraces, the bars and brasseries not far off busy. I took this then to be a force of habit; I remember it now as an act of defiance.

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This article appears in the 17 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Democracy's last stand